‘Another thing never to talk about,’ Robbie said, and he felt Emily flinching beside him. ‘We can add it to the list.’
‘Is this what we’re going to do?’ she asked. ‘Move on, when things get tough? For the rest of our lives?’
‘If necessary, yes.’ His jaw was set. ‘Places aren’t important. You and Adam are important. You’re all that’s important.’
‘But we’re not, Robbie. You have a son. Adam . . . he might have other parents.’
‘It’s the three of us.’ Robbie put his arm around her shoulders and held her tight. He was still thirsty; he’d always be thirsty. But when he held Emily, it didn’t matter.
‘I don’t know,’ said Emily. ‘I don’t think it’s just the three of us. I think it’s lots of people, all of them involved. We could be hurting someone by going.’
‘But we’d hurt us by staying.’
‘I don’t know,’ she said again. She leaned against him, but her eyes were looking out into the dark night. As if she could see something if she tried hard enough.
In the morning they went to the beach on Key Biscayne. Emily packed a picnic and Robbie packed the toys and towels. Sometimes they borrowed a boat for the day but today they didn’t.
Robbie had made up his mind, she knew. Maybe it was simpler for him: he’d lost a child already, and he didn’t want to go through that again. For Robbie, love was always enough of an answer. But for Emily, things were more complicated. She saw the way their decisions reached out to affect other people. How a chance encounter – in an airport, a train station, a gust of wind from nowhere – could create rippling circles all around them. Change everything forever.
They spread a blanket out on the sand. School was back in session and, on a weekday morning, the beach was nearly deserted. There was a woman walking along the shoreline in the distance and a group of teenagers, presumably skipping school, lounging and smoking on the sand near the car park.
Adam sat on her lap to eat his peanut butter sandwiches. He laughed and pointed with a sandy finger at a pelican standing with its legs in the surf. She bent her head to smell his hair, which was still sweet from the shampoo she’d used last night.
He might not, by any rights, be hers.
She thought about the orphanage where they’d first met their son: all the photos on the walls of children and no parents. Where they assigned names to children according to the alphabet. She’d always been grateful that Adam would never remember that place. What if he’d only been placed there because he’d been stolen from his real parents? What if Robbie and she had done him an enormous wrong, just because they loved him?
Her eyes filled with tears and she felt Robbie touch her arm. ‘Why don’t you take a little walk,’ he said to her. ‘Adam and I are going to build a sand castle, aren’t we Adam?’
She nodded, not trusting her voice, and set Adam on his feet. He immediately toddled over to Robbie, who gave him a plastic bucket and spade. Before either of them could see her tears fall, she turned and walked quickly towards the sea. The pelican spread its wings and flapped off with its strange prehistoric grace. When she reached the water, it was warm on her bare feet, hardly colder than the tears she wiped from her face with her sleeve.
How was she supposed to decide what to do? Every choice she could possibly make was wrong.
A woman had approached her and was standing a few feet away, up to her ankles in the water. Emily thought it was maybe the one who’d been walking by herself. Her hair was scraped back from her face; she wore rolled-up jeans that hung off her skinny frame.
Emily quickly pulled down her sunglasses from the top of her head and put them on. ‘Hi,’ she said.
‘You don’t recognise me,’ said the woman. ‘I’m sorry. I shouldn’t disturb you.’
‘Not at all. How do we know each other?’
‘I was one of your patients. Back in May? Bev Schulman? With the twins. Born at twenty-four weeks.’
She said it matter-of-factly, but as soon as Emily heard the word ‘twins’ she knew who this was. Mrs Schulman had given birth to fraternal twins, a boy and a girl, prematurely. Emily had seen her as an emergency.
Both children had been born alive: tiny, curled up, too small for their wrinkled skin. Each of them could fit into the palm of one of Emily’s hands. She was able to give Mrs Schulman only a glimpse of them before they were rushed away from their mother to the tubes and machines of the neonatal ICU.
The boy died within twenty-four hours. The girl hung on for two days.
‘Oh,’ said Emily, instinctively stepping forward and holding out her hand to the other woman. ‘Mrs Schulman. I’m so sorry I didn’t recognise you.’
‘That’s OK. I’ve changed a lot.’ The hand she gave to Emily was thin and cold. ‘I’m Bev Hirsch now. Back to my maiden name. Jonny and I split up.’
Bev tilted her head so that she could look out at the water. ‘We weren’t strong enough to last after we lost Matthew and Miriam. He blamed me, and I blamed him. But I’ve been walking on this beach every day since he left, and I’m coming to see that it wasn’t anyone’s fault. It was just the way it happened.’
‘Loss can split up families,’ said Emily. ‘We see it all the time as doctors. I’m sorry it happened to you.’
The other woman nodded. ‘You were kind to me. I was really scared, and you were kind. I meant to send a letter to the hospital after I got home, but I couldn’t. It was too hard. So when I saw you, I just wanted to say thank you.’
Behind them, there was a roar and a child’s shriek. The two of them instinctively turned to see what had happened: Robbie was lying on his back on the beach, with piles of sand on top of him. Adam held an empty bucket and Robbie was laughing and brushing sand out of his eyes and hair.
‘They’re your family?’
Emily remembered how she used to feel, walking along this beach before Adam and seeing all the children playing. How she used to feel around pregnant women, despite her job. The way she hated herself for being envious of them, for having to turn away sometimes. But Bev, who had lost so much, didn’t turn away.
‘You’re lucky,’ she said to Emily. ‘Hold on tight to them, OK?’
She squeezed Emily’s hand again and went on her way, along the tide line in her bare feet.
Emily went back to where they’d spread out the blanket. Adam was digging up a spadeful of sand to dump on to his father. The child looked up as she approached and she saw the simple gladness on his face.
‘We should go,’ Emily said. She ruffled Adam’s hair and sat beside Robbie, who looped his arm around her waist and pulled her down on to the sand with him.
‘You want to go home?’ he asked her.
‘No. I’m talking about going. Living somewhere new. It doesn’t matter where, as long as it has a coast and a hospital, right? We can make anywhere our home, as long as we’re together.’
She looked along the beach, to where her former patient was walking along the edge of the turquoise water, alone.
Miami was hot. After the thin air at La Paz’s high altitude, the atmosphere felt almost solid and soupy. Sweat sprang out on to Emily’s skin, dampening her shirt as soon as she stepped out of the plane on to the stairs leading down to the tarmac. The surface, ablaze with heat, penetrated the soles of her shoes soon after she stepped off the stairs.